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A Space Experiment That Could One Day Cure Blindness

A powerful purple protein that could help cure certain types of blindness has made its way from a tiny Farmington laboratory all the way up to the International Space Station.

That protein is a light-activated molecule with a fancy name: bacteriorhodopsin. And Nicole Wagner and Jordan Greco, with the Farmington-based company LambdaVision, use it a lot.

The pair said bacteriorhodopsin is so light-sensitive their hope is to, one day, implant it into human eyeballs. The thought is the protein could be used to replace cells that die because of diseases like retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration.

“We’ve, sort of, re-created those cells that have died,” Wagner said, citing research on bacteriorhodopsin by UConn Professor Emeritus Robert Birge, the company’s founder.

To recreate the cells, LambdaVision builds its organic implants by layering the protein onto a film and dipping it over and over into a series of solutions.

It’s a process that works best when those solutions are uniform, but gravity can mess that up.

“The solutions can sediment,” Wagner said. “You can think of this as, almost, a lake. You’re going to see a lot of sand and particles at the bottom of the lake … in microgravity, you get a much more homogeneous solution.”

To test that, LambdaVision secured a spot for their experiment aboard the International Space Station, using funding from the ISS National Lab and Boeing.

Credit Patrick Skahill / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Retinal implants are built layer-by-layer in a lab. The hope is that implants built in low-Earth orbit will be more effective and easier to produce.

They also partnered with Space Tango, a research manufacturing firm, which built a small cube to automate and house the experiment, which the ISS astronauts will run.

It launched in December and retinal implants are now being built in orbit.

The hope is “to have the ability to generate retinal implants that are higher quality. That are more stable and have better performance,” Greco said. “And [to] have a better understanding of what the effects of gravity [are] on our manufacturing process.”

Credit Patrick Skahill / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Jordan Greco, left, and Nicole Wagner at LambdaVision's lab in Farmington. The pair now have an experiment in orbit on the International Space Station.

The pair say the samples should make their way back to Connecticut after returning to Earth mid-January. 

“These, in particular, will stay here in Farmington. We’ll run a series of tests,” Greco said. “To understand the quality and the homogeneity of those films and compare those to what we can manufacture in our labs.”

Greco and Wagner say their research is still very early-stage. They hope to be in clinical trials in the next two years.

But for now, the hope is an experiment cast among the stars could, eventually, help some of us down here on Earth see those stars a little better.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter at Connecticut Public. He covers science and the environment. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.
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